PHOENIX (AP) – Maricopa County's top prosecutor has sent a letter to area police departments saying the prosecutor's office should control when reports and video are released or withheld to the public.
The letter, dated May 8 and written by County Attorney Bill Montgomery, details a process to limit release of video evidence only for law-enforcement purposes and describes how prosecutors will pursue protective orders from judges to help keep records private, The Arizona Republic reported.
State law allows anyone who is denied access to a public record to challenge the decision in court. But Montgomery's letter promises police that if they are sued over withholding records, he will "indemnify" them.
Montgomery's letter indicates those who don't follow this system could be hit with a bill for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office's legal fees later in the case.
"The desires of the public and media to view firsthand evidence of criminal conduct, particularly video evidence, will remain unabated," Montgomery wrote in the letter. "Equally so is our continuing duty to protect the rights of the accused, any victim, and the integrity of a criminal investigation and prosecution. Our criminal justice system deserves no less to maintain our community's trust and confidence."
The Republic reviewed the letter with legal and law-enforcement personnel. Some agreed with Montgomery's stated goal to protect the integrity of a criminal prosecution. Others were shocked by the idea that a county prosecutor – who does not supervise or represent city police departments – would attempt to control their records.
"The public at large should be worried," said Tom Irvine, a longtime private attorney who has previously represented the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, after reviewing the letter. "If you can't get information about what's happening on criminal matters in your community, or know if police are acting improperly, then you have a big problem."
It's unclear whether police agencies consistently follow the steps Montgomery outlines.
Representatives of police departments in Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Scottsdale, Goodyear, Buckeye and Surprise, along with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, declined to comment about the letter, saying only that they were reviewing it.
Glendale Police Chief Rick St. John said he believes Montgomery was only explaining that his office wouldn't pay for costs incurred based on another law-enforcement agency's decision.